Environmental Issues in Southeast Asia


February 05, 2013 12:58 EDT

Environmental issues are omnipresent in Southeast Asia . Apart from entailing tremendous environmental damage, the impact on regional security in Southeast Asia is noticeable.

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm marked a watershed moment in international environmentalism. Hitherto, conference delegates merely discussed vague commitments. However, in 1972, for the first time in history concrete environmental policy goals and objectives were produced. In 1992, the Rio Declaration reaffirmed the commitments made in Stockholm and established new levels of cooperation among States and key sectors of societies.

Although many environmental agreements have been reached, environmental issues are threatening to human security. While Southeast Asian nations encourage political actions in favor of economic growth, they struggle to promote sustainable development approaches. Governments claim to work on a balanced approach that compromises both sectors.

The reality of the situation, however, reveals that governments tend to act in contradictory manners in their creations of sustainable economies.

The European Union’s decision to subsidize biofuels was once seen as a necessary step to reduce greenhouse gas savings. However, people are beginning to criticize this decision, as the subsidization of biofuels has driven up food prices and contributed to deforestation.  And indeed, palm oil monocultures in Indonesia are clearly connected to – and may even cause —  aspects of social impoverishment and ecological tragedies. Yet another debate is the massive damming projects in Laos. While promoted as a component of sustainable development, the dams provoke critique from civil society movements and riparian states who see the dams as a threat to the ecological functioning of the Mekong River. Ecotourism is yet another example of a concept which is meant to preserve nature, but in fact is responsible for an irreversible impact on people’s livelihoods all over Southeast Asia.

Whether it is rising sea levels, the devastation of the rainforests, or greenhouse gas emission, it has become evident that environmental issues do not halt at nations’ borders. Environmental issues ought to be seen as transnational problems. Hence, policy makers in Southeast Asia are under increasing pressure to reconfigure their environmental policies to satisfy their citizens’ needs on a national level. Furthermore, Southeast Asian governments must foster a multilateral dialogue to avoid simply procrastinating problems.

Why do environmental issues in Southeast Asia matter?

During the Cold War, traditional security perceptions determined international relations in Southeast Asia. However, the paradigms of security and regional stability have shifted substantially since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Non – traditional security (NTS) or Human Security issues have posed increasingly serious threats to regional balances. NTS derive primarily from nonmilitary sources: climate change, resource scarcity, natural disasters, irregular migration, famine, human smuggling, drug trafficking, and transnational crime. Contrary to the traditional military power threats, NTS include threats that challenge the survival and well being of people. As such, decision makers have started to reconsider their foreign policy approaches.

Member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently have seen rapid economic growth. However, governments are prioritizing economic growth at the expense of environment and sustainablity. Yet, Southeast Asia is impacted by enormous environmental stress resulting from global warming, urban excess, deforestation, water scarcity, overfishing and pollution.

In principle, the political arena consists of four main actors: local environmental groups, international organisations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and nation states. Considering the transnational and multilateral impact of environmental issues, ASEAN is the sole institution in the region that can provide the necessary framework to address issues on a multilateral level.

Environmental security in Southeast Asia presents a long list of problems. In 2006, the Southeast Asian haze had immediately negative impact on relations between Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Saipan. Vapor, mainly originating from Kalimantan, affected adjacent populations. Public institutions remained closed and people were advised to stay at home.

In the Mekong region, China controls the upper reaches of the Mekong river and the Chinese government intends to build further dams in the coming years. Construction works will result in mass relocations and residents have had to leave affected areas. Inevitably, this would lead to social unrest and even to interstate tensions.

Interestingly, despite the potential conflicts that may result from environmental issues, implementation of laws has hardly been realized. Several agreements, for example the Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 1985 and the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002, have been passed. But a number of factors – specifically, the fundamental principles of non – interference in domestic affairs, informality of negotiations, and non-binding plans instead of treaties — hinder the creation of effective environmental regimes and the establishment of serious environmental protection measures.

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